On Being a Guest, and Dumpling Evenings
by Leo Racicot
We are delighted to present this poignant recollection of Marilyn Schaefer by Leo Racicot, who provided us with these photographs.
I was in her company only once, twice if you count the time she came over to Ed's. That visit was brief; we talked about The Makioka Sisters, the occasional merits of Bizet over Mozart, the high price of flowers at the corner market. There was not time to like her or not like her: she was "sweet".
Ed is Edmund White, literary lion and gay cultural and social icon. He and Marilyn have lived in each others' pockets for sixty-one years. Their affection for each other was as sturdy and tantalizing as a slice of good pie.
One October evening, Ed brought me over to Marilyn's home on the Upper West Side. I was his "date" and this was to be my introduction to Marilyn's "dumpling evenings", calm, unpretentious gatherings of the great, the near-great, the soon-to-be great, the never-will-be-great. Quiet, intimate dinner parties, a tradition begun back when both were kids.
I have never forgotten that evening, and I know I never shall, held at Elizabeth Bishop's "sun and crumb" time, that hour between day and night that summons us to table and to each other.
Rounding off our tiny foursome was Francis Polizio, a gentleman and a gentle man, a retired French teacher and dealer in antiques. Our gathering -- Marilyn, Ed, Fran and me -- certainly was companionable. I still enjoy divine friendships with Ed and Fran. But it is Marilyn I can't forget.
I didn't know her but I knew her -- her face had a wise, porcelain finish, almost Eurasian, though, in truth, it was Germanic. Her skin, birthday pink and flower petal-gentle, and her demeanor, equally soft, belied a searing intellect; her mind was a wide avenue of tolerance, of carnal acceptance, of ideas, an unapologetic Socialist back when it was traitorous, anathema to be so.
She was wearing just the right clothes -- her skirt made a reassuring sound when she moved. She had a Sunday look. Marilyn had, maybe yes, the look of a nun minus totally, of course, the antiseptic patina that ends any further interest you might have meeting most religious -- a sensuous nun, that's it!
Her hostess radar honed in on my nervousness and she sat down so close beside me, I could taste her perfume. She was your silent confidante, an instant chum; an expansive nature lent her an instant familiarity. She and her home and her place in the world made everyone, everything near her cozy. Ed says "Marilyn radiated warmth". Slender as a thread of saffron, she covered you in quilt-y comfort; you didn't want to budge from it. Not ever. It was that palpable.
Her home radiated the same -- there was about Marilyn and her apartment a fragrance of gentility, that essence almost impossible to find now. Have you ever seen the Panorama Easter Eggs so popular in the '60s? Delicately ornate, flowered, candied ceramic eggs. When your eyes peered into the little window, they were treated to the most shimmering scenes: miniature seed gardens, poppy-colored ducklings, thatched cottages, opalescent fields where horses trotted and rabbits ran. Marilyn's place made me remember those bagatelles of my boyhood -- to enter was to be greeted by an absolute wonderland of objects and odors and sounds -- the loveliest, most meaningful of all, being Marilyn herself.
Over yonder, the stove popped and percolated with food -- rich promises of tastes soon to be unwrapped and enjoyed, the Christmas Eve excitement that seizes you wondering what the morning will bring. You could hardly stand the waiting so intoxicating was it -- and when our meal finally was revealed -- a great table of scallops with the roe still attached, the sweetest roasted yams, the best asparagus, the endless supply of wine, Marilyn served it up Nana-style and we -- the self-dubbed Four Francophiles -- feasted and were at peace...
* * * *
I have been thinking a great deal lately about guests, and about being a guest, a guest in someone else's house or -- their guest at a restaurant but that is not quite the same, is it? I mean, dining at the house of someone I have not met before, the feelings that develop when strangers get together to share food and drink and conversation. If you stop to think about it, it is such a common occurrence but is, in fact, really odd. Do you agree with me, or do you? The ways in which communal eating and drinking become instruments that draw people who don't know each other together in harmony. Think of this as miracle -- think of this and be amazed -- that in a world of seven billion people -- billion! -- we have been given the blessing of eating with another person, or a small party of others, for an hour, an evening, a weekend, an afternoon. For a brief period of time, we are company for each other, share a special moment and then we never see each other again. We mean to. We say we will, we must. We offer the unspoken, intimate whisper that next time, "It will be 'just us'. Then someone moves away, or finishes college, or marries, enters the seminary, stops speaking to us without warning or explanation. Life and Death intervene.
Marilyn got very sick very fast. Our time together was brief, an evening really. There followed cards at birthdays and holidays, "hellos" conveyed through Ed. But illness became her constant companion and she grew self-conscious of her deterioration. She closed her door to even lifelong friends. She made a valiant attempt to get to Ed's to see us for his annual Christmas feast but phoned to say she was too weak to even make it to the corner to hail a cab. In May, I was listening to Joni Mitchell singing, "Nothing lasts for long..." when Ed's email came saying "Marilyn died."
I fell in love with Marilyn Schaefer in one breath. There was something indelible about her, about "there", there being where she was and lived. I still see her. I feel her. I keep thinking about being a guest, about what that means, about why some people will take a stranger into their home and nourish them and love them, without question. I keep remembering that evening in that Upper West Side apartment. Outside -- the mad, Manhattan circus. Inside -- Marilyn and cozy repose.
You are equally loved, if not more loved, eating with one friend, or a couple of friends, as you would have been feasting among the multitudes in Great, Old Babylon or being one of The Twelve seated at Our Lord's Last Meal.